Madame Bovary (1949)

Madame Bovary, 1949, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Jennifer Jones, James Mason, Van Heflin, Louis Jourdan. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. B&W, 115 minutes.

Emma Rouault (Jennifer Jones) is a young woman living alone with her father in rural France, lost in her dreams of romance and excitement, lives she has read about in forbidden novels while in a convent school. One day she meets aspiring doctor Charles Bovary (Van Heflin), who immediately falls for her and pursues her as he tends to her father’s health.

Charles has no illusions about himself. He tells Emma he is a rather dull person and not a highly skilled doctor, but promises to treat her well and provide a good living. Emma, captivated by her own dreams, doesn’t appear to hear his blunt words and lackluster promises when she accepts his proposal.

They marry, and Emma immediately begins living beyond their means, which an indulgent and weak Charles allows. Emma, never satisfied, begins an affair with first another man in their village, then with an aristocrat (Louis Jourdan) who moves nearer to Emma so they can be together.

The realities of life are overwhelming for Emma, and take her on a tragic course that destroys the lives of all who love her most.

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Jennifer Jones, Louis Jourdan

Lana Turner was originally considered for the role of Emma Bovary, but was considered too sensual, a problem given the way producer Pandro S. Berman was trying to frame the film. Too appease censors, he set up the story with the real-life courtroom drama of the book’s author Gustave Flaubert attempting to defend his novel against charges of indecency. In the movie (which loosely draws from the real-life trial), Flaubert, played by James Mason, portrays Emma Bovary as a sympathetic young woman who has fallen under the spell of romantic novels and seeks a lifestyle that doesn’t exist. Her dreams of beauty and excitement make her sympathetic and deserving of forgiveness, Flaubert argues, and not harsh condemnation.

Perhaps it was that set-up of the plot that was problematic for the critic for The New York Times, who questioned whether or not the story of Emma Bovary was “timely.” However, he had high praise for the male stars, saying “Louis Jourdan is electric as her elegant lover, and Van Heflin is quietly appealing as her trusting, small-town spouse.”

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Van Heflin, Jennifer Jones

The tale of Emma Bovary has withstood the changing whims of time because of the unflinching way it reveals human nature and foibles, spelling out the reality of disillusionment and despair in unrelenting terms. The story has been brought to film numerous times, but this production stands out, perhaps because of its stark focus on Emma’s character without sharp judgment, letting the story speak its own truth.

Minnelli’s opulent storytelling, including the dance sequence during which reason is lost and passions are flamed, supplements the great heartache and loss that is found in Madame Bovary. The courtroom drama seems nearly moot in the end, but still leaves us pondering the fate of all who crossed into the life of Emma Bovary.

It Should Happen to You

It Should Happen to You, 1954, Columbia Pictures. Starring Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon, Peter Lawford. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 86 minutes.

Young and broke, Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday) dreams of a better life, better than “marrying the first man that comes along…or maybe the second.” She has been saving for the rather unusual goal of buying billboard space, where she plans to place her name and picture for all of New York City to see, believing fame will bring her what she wants.

She catches the attention of budding filmmaker Pete Sheppard (Jack Lemmon) while walking through Central Park one afternoon in her stocking feet.  The two hit it off, and when Pete tells her she may end up in one of his documentaries, Gladys is thrilled at the idea of being in the movies.

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Jack Lemmon, Judy Holliday

Later that day, she acts on her dream of fame and fortune and buys 90 days of billboard space. With her name in letters that seem sky-high, Gladys is on her way to the happiness she desires. Or so it seems, until the Adams Soap Co., which traditionally has purchased that same billboard space each year for the same three months, steps in. With negotiations designed to intimidate, Evan Adams III (Peter Lawford) works to get back what he sees as rightfully his.

In the meantime, Pete has moved into the same apartment building Gladys lives in, and the two begin a romance of sorts. Pete’s interest is obvious, while Gladys, although appreciative of his attentions, is more intent on seeing where the notoriety from the billboard can get her.

Judy Holliday portrays Gladys as a likable young woman who, despite her dreams of glory, is basically happy in life. Most importantly, she knows what she wants, although the path she believes will lead her there is perhaps ill-advised.

There are some wonderful lines in this film that reveal Gladys’ perceptive side and keep her from being merely a ditzy blonde. She is, in fact, more insightful than simple, and well-equipped to take care of herself in treacherous situations.  The script was written by Garson Kanin, who also wrote Born Yesterday and Adam’s Rib, two significant vehicles for Holliday’s career.

This was the first major film appearance for Jack Lemmon, who is at his best as the sincere, baffled man in love with a woman who is stubbornly pursuing a foolish goal. He stands in stark contrast to Lawford’s slick and sleazy character, a man who takes advantage of women as a matter of course.

Look for a delightful duet between Holliday and Lemmon, interspersed with conversation and casually confident piano-playing, one of the finest parts of the film.

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Judy Holliday, Peter Lawford

It Should Happen to You was nominated for one Academy Award, Best Costume Design (Black & White). It was well-received by both critics and audiences, and its popularity for classic film fans has grown in recent years with the onslaught of reality shows making the film’s mockery of being famous for being famous seem both prescient and insightful.

This is a movie with all the elements for a great comedy, and it delivers. The script is original and sharp, the performances by Holliday and Lemmon endearing, and the direction by George Cukor once again showing he knows how to bring out the best in both actors and a script. The better scenes are perhaps in the early parts of the film, but it remains charming until the heartfelt end.

Gentleman’s Agreement

Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947, Twentieth Century Fox. Starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield. Directed by Elia Kazan. B&W, 118 minutes.

Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) has just moved with his mother (Anne Revere) and ten-year-old son Tom (Dean Stockwell) to New York, where he has a new job waiting for him as a magazine reporter. Phil is an experienced writer, and when he’s given an assignment on anti-semitism, he’s told it’s his particular skill his editor believes will give the topic strength it hasn’t had in the hands of lesser writers.

He struggles with the idea, uncertain at first if he even wants to take it on. It’s when his son begins asking him questions and his mother makes a few dry observations about his own prejudices he decides he wants to do it. Finding the right angle, however, seems impossible, until Phil, who is not Jewish, hits on the idea of living as a Jew in New York City for however long it takes to get the story he needs.

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Gregory Peck, Anne Revere

He’s met and fallen in love with Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire), a seemingly liberal woman whose deeply ingrained prejudices start to show as he begins to face the realities of bigotry. She is among a handful of people who know his real identity, and she’s careful to make sure the right people also know that truth.

Add to the mix Phil’s childhood friend Dave Goldman (John Garfield) who’s just moved to New York after serving in the war and is struggling to find a home for himself and his family. Dave, of course, knows the truth about Phil’s heritage, and as a Jew, he lends insight to the research.

The film won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm, as the magazine’s fashion editor and Phil’s confidante). It was nominated for five others, including Best Actor (Peck) and Best Actress (McGuire).

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John Garfield, Gregory Peck, Celeste Holm

John Garfield, who was Jewish, generally played leading men, but accepted the supporting role because he believed in the importance of the film. The role of Phil’s son, Tommy, was played by Dean Stockwell, the veteran actor with one of the longest careers in Hollywood.

Gentleman’s Agreement was made in the years immediately following the Holocaust, when Americans were learning increasing amounts about the persecution of Jews and becoming sensitive to bigotry in their own country. Filmmakers, too, after the horrors of World War II, began to focus on more serious issues and take on “real”topics, such as alcoholism in The Lost Weekend and the trials facing returning veterans in The Best Years of Our Lives, and audiences responded well.

Interestingly, however, the film never mentions the Holocaust, a deliberate decision on the part of the film’s producer and director. Another point of interest is the use of racial slurs; words that are considered on par with profanity today were used in the movie without reservation and any apparent objection by censors.

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Dorothy McGuire, Gregory Peck, Dean Stockwell

The movie is still noteworthy for its ability to bring forth intelligent discussion of anti-semitism. Critics note that it focuses on only one region in the country, that is, the upper-crust society Philip Green is part of, but whether or not that is a fault of the film is debatable. This is one movie’s take on the topic, and it can’t be responsible for portraying the whole of the problem.

Gentleman’s Agreement is complex, as is its topic, well-acted and thought-provoking. It remains a worthwhile movie for anyone interested in what a film can do for shining light society’s ills, as well as those who enjoy classic movies at their best.

As of February 7, 2017, “Gentleman’s Agreement” is available on Netflix streaming service as well as DVD rental. Availability is subject to change.

Now, Voyager

Now, Voyager, 1942, Columbia Pictures. Starting Bette Davis, Paul Heinreid, Claude Rains. Directed by Irving Rapper. B&W, 117 minutes.

The story of a plain and painfully shy young woman, held tightly under the grip of her abusive mother, Now, Voyager is a melodrama elevated to an unexpected level of quality by fine performances and a somewhat unpredictable plot. Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) was a late-in-life child for her sharp-tongued mother (Gladys Cooper), and the overbearing woman has never let her forget what a burden that has been.

With the help of kind relatives, Charlotte is sent to a sanatarium (today known as a mental health facility), where, under the patient and loving care of Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), she evolves into a more confident young lady with style and panache.

The stay at the sanatarium isn’t all that helps cure her, however. She leaves the facility and goes on a cruise to South America, where she meets the dashing Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance (Paul Heinreid), a married man whose charm and attention bring her more fully into her own.

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Claude Rains, Bette Davis

But the trip ends, and Charlotte returns home. From there the story has both its predictable and surprising moments, with an ending only a melodrama of that era could pull off.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actress for Davis, Best Supporting Actress for Cooper, and Best Music, Scoring for Max Steiner. It won the music award, as well it should have. Reviews were mixed, in fact, they tended to be more critical than praising, but the movie did well, particularly with women, its intended audience. Melodramas (“weepies”) were popular with the female crowd at the time, and this one was better than most.

Producer Hal B. Wallis originally envisioned Irene Dunne in the lead, but when Davis heard about the film she vigourously campaigned for the part. She was under contract to Warner Bros., she argued, while it would cost the studio to borrow Dunne from Columbia. Also, as a native New Englander, she could understand Charlotte Vale and her lifestyle.

During production, Davis gained a reputation for fighting her own and her cast members’ battles with director Irving Rapper, who was said to go home every evening exhausted from the day’s work with his strong-willed star. Heinreid later said he appreciated her intervention on his behalf, including campaigning for a second screen test when his appearance on the first was “wrong in every way.”

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Bette Davis, Paul Heinreid

Many women wrote to the studio saying they saw themselves in the homely Charlotte, and believed if that transformation could be made for her, it could for them, as well. As Davis was not a classic beauty, this was yet another reason choosing her for the part was wise. It did, indeed, show the power of confidence, self-worth, and some savvy style decisions.

Now, Voyager has staying power because of its solid performances and very human storytelling, as well as the sharp cinematography and feminist perspective. For Bette Davis fans it is a must-see, and should be on the list of movies to watch for all classic film fans.

As of February 3, 2017, “Now, Voyager” is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Sunday, February 19, 2017 at 9:00 a.m. ET/8:00 a.m. CT and Friday, April 28, 2017 at 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 p.m. CT. Scheduling is subject to change; check TCM’s schedule for the latest information.

 

Bachelor Mother

Bachelor Mother, 1939, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Ginger Rogers, David Niven, Charles Coburn. Directed by Garson Kanin. B&W, 82 minutes.

Polly Parrish (Ginger Rogers) has just been laid off of her seasonal job at Merlin and Son’s Department Store. It’s Christmastime, and she is in need of income, any income.

While at lunch on what appears to be her last day of work, she passes a foundling home and sees an older woman drop off an infant. Afraid the child may fall off the steps, Polly reaches out to pick him up, just as one of the home’s matrons opens the door. Inside, she’s unable to convince the home’s director the baby isn’t hers, but escapes the situation without a bundle of joy.

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Ginger Rogers

The foundling home tracks down her employer and convinces David Merlin (David Niven), the son in “Merlin and Son’s,” to give her back her job so she can care for “her” son. He does, but ends up paying an unexpected price for his generosity. Through a series of mishaps, the elder Mr. Merlin (Charles Coburn) comes to believe his son is the father of the baby, and expects him to do right by the child and his mother.

Bachelor Mother is an engaging comedy, predictable in some ways, yet clever in the details and twists that raise it above the level of bland storytelling. Nivens, Rogers, and Coburn each bring his or her own particular charm, with Rogers in particular showing an edgy, droll side. It doesn’t hurt that the baby is delightful, performing, it seems, on cue, although of course that likely wasn’t the case.

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David Niven, Ginger Rogers

Rogers initially expressed “deep reservations” about the script, stating the story line was thin and the characters “had no life.” However, her concerns proved unfounded, and in her autobiography she wrote, “I loved working with David Niven and the precious baby…(Garson Kanin) was imaginative and spontaneous and his good humor and lively sense of comedy smoothed out any problems along the way.”

The script was by prolific screenwriter Norman Krasna, who also wrote the screenplays for such movies as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and White Christmas.  It was based on a story by Felix Jackson, who received the film’s one Academy Award nomination, Best Writing, Original Story.

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David Niven

The film critic for The New York Times wrote “through smart writing, direction and performance, the theme is developed hilariously, with sudden and unexpected twists which never are permitted to affect the insane logic of the yarn’s progression.”

Perfectly enjoyable, Bachelor Mother is a comedy all classic movie fans should see. While the plot line of child abandonment hardly seems comic material, it’s handled in such a way that the improbable is easy to believe and the unbefitting is downright funny.

 

Anna Karénina (1935)

Anna Karénina, 1935, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Greta Garbo, Fredric March, Basil Rathbone. Directed by Clarence Brown. B&W, 93 minutes.

Anna Karénina (Greta Garbo) is bound in a financially and socially comfortable, yet deeply unsatisfying, life at home with her husband of ten years, Karénin (Basil Rathbone), and the son she adores, Sergei (Freddie Bartholomew). She wistfully, if somewhat indirectly, relates her feelings of malaise and longing to young Kitty (Maureen O’Sullivan) moments before she meets the dashing Count Vronsky (Fredric March). From there her life is changed forever.

Time and again, Anna and Vronsky defy society with their clandestine and illicit meetings. Gradually they are less discreet, and she is warned by her husband to stay away from the Count. Captivated by the intensity of her feelings, Anna makes a decision that has consequences she had been cautioned were inevitable, yet chose not to believe.

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Greta Garbo, Basil Rathbone

The restraints of bringing Tolstoy’s tome to the screen in little more than 90 minutes are offset by fine performances, stylish set decoration and costuming, and deft direction from Clarence Brown. The result, while not epic, is opulant and moving.

The movie was well-received critically, and did well in the box office, although it was met with mixed feelings by the general public. The London Observer‘s film critic wrote, “it is handsome and dashing, with enough social sense to present divorce as a problem to an age which has come to regard it as a commonplace.”

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Greta Garbo, Fredric March

A superb actress, Garbo’s experience in silent films served her well in Anna Karénina. Her final scenes in particular are subtly nuanced yet fully expressive, with all that is in her heart seen in her eyes, and barely a word said. She is the strength of this film. As the aggrieved husband, Basil Rathbone’s performance is taut and precise. While you may not have sympathy for the man, you understand his point of view. In contrast, Fredric March is perhaps not as compelling, but does not take away from the power of the story.

Dissatisfied with the way the adaption of Tolstoy’s classic had been handled in 1927 in a silent version of the tale titled Love, Garbo had long campaigned for another opportunity to bring Anna Karénina to the screen. She was met with resistance from her studio, yet remained undeterred until they gave in.

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Greta Garbo

Anna Karénina has been remade several times, and each version is a reflection of the era in which it is produced. The story, however, is timeless, and was brought to the screen in 1935 in a powerful manner, making this classic film one of the better movies of the early period of filmmaking.

 

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948, Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt. Directed by John Huston. B&W, 126 minutes.

After being cheated out of their fair wages and finding themselves dead broke in a foreign country, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) look to the gold hidden in the hills of Mexico as the way out of dire circumstances. They turn to a crusty old-timer, Howard (Walter Huston), to lead them in their search for buried treasure.

It’s dangerous in 1920s Mexico to search for gold; banditos and federales lurk behind every corner and will likely kill you before asking questions. But Dobbs and Curtin are determined, and Howard reluctantly agrees to go along as their guide.

The story isn’t in the search, however, it’s in the minds and motivations of the men seeking what they are unlikely to find, the drive that keeps them moving toward their goal of wealth and satisfaction, and the greed, fear and paranoia that soon accompany them in their quest.

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Walter Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt

Bogart was given his big break in John Huston’s directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon, and this film proved to further his career in yet another fashion with its grisly reality and harsh characterization. That Bogart was the top-rated actor of his time is no surprise, given his versatility and intelligent performances, and he played his unlikable character in such a way one is fascinated by the performance and drawn into the story despite the growing realization that Dobbs is truly unsavory and at times, malevolent.

Walter Huston, father of the film’s director, played bit parts in some of his son’s other films (he was seen as a “good luck charm,” although his appearance did not guarantee success), but this is the only movie of John’s in which he played a major role.  John Huston had long wanted to bring the novel of the same name to the screen, and he always envisioned his father in the role of Howard. As fate would have it, both father and son won Academy Awards for their parts in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Walter for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and John as Best Director and for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Tim Holt, best known for his likable performances in Westerns, rises to the occasion and proves himself to be far more capable an actor than many gave him credit for throughout his career. That likability comes through in this character, but he’s as tough as the rest, and is a fine contrast to Bogart’s roughness.

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Humphrey Bogart

Critics of the day had nothing less than effusive praise for the film, and summed up its nature eloquently. The New York Times movie critic made note of the film’s grim yet redeeming theme in this manner: “Mr. Huston has shaped a searching drama of the collision of civilization’s vicious greeds with the instinct for self-preservation in an environment where all the barriers are down…he has done a superb illumination of basic characteristics in men.”

Variety stated, “It’s a grim and brutal slice of life whose raw elements have been ordered onto the plane of tragedy through a terrific twist of irony. There’s a magnificent joker hidden at bottom, but spectators will find it so grisly and so bitter that this film moves out of the class of simple entertainment into the realm of vivid experience.” James Agee wrote of the movie in The Nation,  “nominally an adventure story, this is really an exploration of character as revealed in vivid action.”

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Tim Holt, Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an outstanding film and has stood the test of time because of its insightful view into human nature set in the backdrop of a Western tale. The cinematography matches the mood in its stark and simple nature (John Huston once said of the detached style of filming, “I just wanted them to look like they were stewing in their own juices”).  That, together with the real-life settings of Durango and Tampico, Mexico, the all-to-authentic performances and the story itself, make it a classic worth watching.